How to Choose an Agent Amid Competing Offers

Markers pointing in different directions
Photo credit: derekbruff on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s post is an excerpt from Funny You Should Ask by literary agent Barbara Poelle (@Bpoelle), a new book collecting questions and answers from her popular column at Writer’s Digest.

Dear FYSA,

I received an offer of representation for my young adult novel. When I notified the other agents who had the full manuscript that I was withdrawing from consideration, I got an additional five offers! What would you advise I ask of the offering agents in this situation?


Full Dance Card

Dear Happy Dancer,

Well, first of all, if I am one of the offering agents, I advise you to pick me. I am delightful.

But really, thank you so much for this question, because this happens more often than most authors realize. When multiple agents make an offer on the same manuscript, there are indeed several questions you should ask the offering parties, and yourself, in order to determine which one might be your best match.

I should note for others here that these questions should also be considered even if only one agent is offering. After all, an offer isn’t an obligation—it’s an invitation, right? So invite them into a conversation!

First, let’s assume that each of the offering agents is someone you chose for a particular reason, and not merely the result of a shot of tequila and a handful of darts flung at the pages of the Guide to Literary Agents. I would suggest taking a page out of my client Traci Chee’s approach when the same thing happened to her—open a new document on your computer or grab a legal pad and write every agent’s name and the primary reason why you queried each one at the top.

Next, take a look at how long each agent has been in practice and how many clients he represents. We’ll call the resulting comparison bandwidth versus experience. A newer agent with only a few years under his belt may have a greater bandwidth for more personal attention and editorial work, while an agent with a robust and lengthy client list has the reputation that accompanies years of experience to guide your career. Which is more important to you? (Hint: There is not a wrong answer here.)

Next, let’s take a look at subrights management. How does the agent handle film, foreign, audio, and merchandising rights? There isn’t necessarily a “good” versus “bad” way to handle rights, as long as the agent has practices in place in order to take advantage of said rights, as well as examples of previous sales resulting from these practices. Don’t merely ask, “Do you think this can sell film and foreign rights?”—because the answer will be an obvious yes. That’s a wasted question and you get only three wasted questions before I honk an air horn over the phone line.

Following that, ask what the agent is thinking insofar as the intensity of a round of revisions before shopping to publishers. Again, no wrong answer here, just something for you to compare, and to consider which course you feel resonates as the right next step. You can also ask how many editors she sees herself approaching on an initial round of submissions—but don’t ask which editors or which houses, as you can safely assume if you’ve done your homework that the agent is not just sending to Bob Snodgrass from Snodgrass Publishing & Hog Feed Inc. (although I heard Bob was one of the underbidders on Fifty Shades). That would count as another wasted question, and I would open the drawer with the air horn in it.

Finally, do ask to speak to one of the agent’s current clients. Let’s assume none of the clients are going to be like, “Dude, she day-drinks and keeps calling me Gary. My name is Renée.” (Geez, Gary, why you trying to play me like that on a referral call?) Ask about turnaround and response times on reads and revisions, about communication styles, and about what, if any, support you can expect from other agency clients and colleagues.

Then ask the client, “What is your favorite thing about working with him, and what is one thing you would change about his representation style if you could?” Now that person might say something that you don’t prioritize, which is just as solid an answer as if she’d said something that you do. It’s a helpful insight into the mechanizations of that agent and her business practices, and when you have fairly evenly qualified candidates vying to be your advocate, every little insight can help.

Barbara Poelle's Funny You Should Ask

You can ask anything else you want, of course, but if I may be so bold, I’d like to share something I wrote to a new client of mine whom I acquired in a six agent scrum similar to yours: This decision most likely will come down to you sitting quietly for a moment and listening to what your instinct is telling you about what you want your partnership to look and feel like.

I truly believe the agent/author relationship is a unique one, and there will almost inevitably be a lot of swells and buckles along the way. No single publishing path is the same—it may take months, even years to sell your book, and the sale is only the ship leaving the dock. There is a long journey ahead. Find someone you can stand strong with, whether lashed to the ballast in a storm or gliding in calm waters with both of your faces tilted up to the sun, thinking, What a ride.

From FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK by Barbara Poelle, published by Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Poelle.

Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments